“Check the back of the fancy trucks and SUVs when you walk by them. I’d put money on the fact that they’re spotless.”

An Irish man living in Lilongwe told me this. He works for a company that makes low-cost fuel-efficient stoves. Their production is decentralized and he spends most of his time in the field.

Apparently this man’s lifestyle is unique among ex-pats working in the area. Most others work for NGOs and stay hidden in the confines of their fancy office buildings. Every year they must spend all of their budget to guarantee that they will receive the same amount of donations the next year. So they go on a spending spree for expensive cars and trucks.

Rarely do these cars make it into the dusty or muddy field. I’d bet that over half of the cars on Lilongwe’s streets are SUVs belonging to NGOs or NGO workers. All of them are spotlessly clean.

I’ve been stuck in Lilongwe for over a week now. I often travel by private car. I spend most of my time in front of a computer screen, ironing out the details of our field survey. This week we’re finally going to visit a site, but only for a few days. I feel trapped and frustrated and useless.

I wonder if this is what NGO workers feel like all the time. And I wonder if it bothers them.

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